Trump has mixed signals for Astana partners

(Turkey deploys battle tanks on border with Syria.)

Trump’s tweets earlier today regarding Syrian withdrawal plan came out of the blue – “Starting the long overdue pullout from Syria while hitting the little remaining ISIS territorial caliphate hard, and from many directions. Will attack again from existing nearby base if it reforms. Will devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds. Create 20 mile safe zone… Likewise, do not want the Kurds to provoke Turkey. Russia, Iran and Syria have been the biggest beneficiaries of the long term U.S. policy of destroying ISIS in Syria – natural enemies. We also benefit but it is now time to bring our troops back home. Stop the ENDLESS WARS!”

The tweets have much to convey. The signal was at once an appeasement of Turkey, a taunt to Russia and a curious quasi-friendly nod to Iran plus, of course, brilliant grandstanding domestically.

The invocation ‘Stop the ENDLESS WARS!’ no doubt resonates in the American public opinion. But the clarion call also underscores that the withdrawal plans are real. Moscow has been doubting whether the US troops will actually leave Syria, but now it must come face to face with the emergent reality of the American forces disappearing over the horizon.

But Trump also repeats that the US forces will be coming over the horizon “from many directions” every now and then, depending upon the exigencies of the fight against “ISIS territorial caliphate”. He avoids the expression “east of Euphrates.” Presumably, the whole of Syria will be in the crosshairs of the US forces. Indeed, he mentions attacks being staged from “existing nearby base.” This was also what he had said while on a “surprise visit” to al-Asad Air Base, situated in western Iraq between Baghdad and the Syrian border at the end of last month. “In fact, we could use this (Iraq) as the base if we wanted to do something in Syria,” Trump had said.

Trump then challenged Erdogan frontally by threatening to “devastate” the Turkish economy if the latter dared to give the final order for the military to cross the border into Syria in the vast region to the east of Euphrates where the Kurdish militia aligned with the US are in control. Trump seems to have sanctions in mind. Having said that, Trump also quickly pandered to Erdogan’s longstanding proposal to create a 30 kilometre wide buffer zone all along the Turkish-Syrian border.

When Erdogan had originally proposed the idea of the buffer zone to the former US president Barack Obama, it fell on deaf ears. Now Trump is revisiting Erdogan’s proposal and expressing support for the idea. (The European Union had showed interest in Erdogan’s proposal when it was first mooted, since he had linked it with the return of Syrian refugees from Europe.)

Turkey’s initial reaction to Trump’s tweets has been rhetorical. But the rhetoric eschewed any strategic defiance of the US as such. Importantly, Erdogan himself is taking time out before reacting. The surprising part is that Trump’s tweets followed a telephone conversation regarding Syria between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu the previous day . Indeed, Cavusoglu also gave a rather mild reaction to Trump’s tweet – bantering about Trump’s habit of using Tweeter to talk with Turkey and recalling that the proposal for the buffer zone on the border was not really an American idea.

At any rate, Trump hasn’t disclosed how he would promote the project to create a buffer zone. Conceivably, an idea to create a Turkish enclave (with Western support) on Syrian territory may not go down well in Moscow, Tehran and Damascus. In sum, Trump could be causing some embarrassment Turkey, one of the Astana partners (Russia, Turkey and Iran), with a proposal that it cannot easily spurn but knows is difficult to implement on the ground.

Meanwhile, Turkish media continues to report the military build-up on the Syrian border. It is anybody’s guess what Erdogan’s game plan could be. However, one possibility is that some amount of muscle flexing and whipping up of nationalist sentiments will be useful for Erdogan politically in view of the local body elections coming up next month, which will be a crucial test of his popularity. On the other hand, Turkey is unlikely to launch a military operation without holding consultations with Russia at the highest level of leadership. And Moscow is yet to schedule a meeting between President Putin and Erdogan in Russia, which the latter has sought.

Besides, a large-scale Turkish military operation deep into Syria is risky, as it may meet with resistance not only from Kurdish fighters but also Arab tribes who are mentored by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The supply lines could get overstretched. Again, Turkish operation will be a serious violation of Syria’s sovereignty and will meet with heavy criticism from Damascus.

All in all, therefore, Trump may have floated the idea of the buffer zone as a palliative / face-saver for Erdogan. And it stands to reason that the idea has been previously discussed between Washington and Ankara.

The fantastic thing about Trump’s tweet comes in the latter part of it where he acknowledges without any apparent heartburn that Russia, Iran and Syria have been the “biggest beneficiaries” of the fight against the ISIS. Israel won’t like to hear Trump saying this. But then, on his part, Trump also claims a trophy for himself insofar as he’s getting the US troops to return home from Syria.